The History of the Holburne Collection
Sir William Holburne and his Collection: Private to Public: the creation of the Holburne Museum
The Museum owes its foundation not to Sir William Holburne himself but to his younger sister, Mary Anne Barbara Holburne (1802-1882) who inherited her brother's possessions and outlived him by eight years. Miss Holburne's aim was to establish a memorial to the family of which she was the last member. In the final years of her life she set up a small committee with which to discuss her plans to for a museum of her brother's collection. She had opened negotiations to house the collection in Sydney College, the building which presently accommodates the Museum, but which was then in a derelict state. However, her own illness and legal difficulties prevented its acquisition during her lifetime. Following Miss Holburne's death in 1882 an endowment was provided from the sale of the house and domestic contents in Cavendish Crescent. However, the lack of a suitable building, coupled with certain imprecisions in the codicil to Miss Holburne's Will, meant that it was to be another eleven years before the Museum opened to the public.
Miss Holburne's intention was that:
' the extensive collection of Plate, Pictures, Engravings, China, Books and other articles of vertu formed by my late brother, Sir William Holburne, Baronet, together with my own jewels and personal ornaments shall be placed in a public museum in Bath for public inspection…I leave to you and to any successors appointed by you the fullest power to frame rules for the admission of the public either free or otherwise and to accept donations of money or similar objects of vertu so as to enlarge the collection and make it the nucleus for the establishment of a museum of Fine Art for the City of Bath.'
William Chaffers and James Rainey made a selection of over four thousand objects suitable for the Museum and the well-known Bath bookseller Gregory assisted with the selection of books from the library. During the eleven years following Miss Holburne's death, the collection remained in the care of a servant at 10 Cavendish Crescent. The possibility that the Museum might open in the house, with the public being admitted by appointment, was never seriously pursued. The house was too small and the plan met with vigorous opposition from neighbours. Legal difficulties arising from the claims of next of kin and as to the administration of the Museum were finally settled in the High Court in 1886. During the following six years the trustees were preoccupied with finding suitable premises. The Sydney College negotiations were reopened but to no avail. Sixteen properties were considered before the trustees finally chose the former Savings Bank Building in Charlotte Street off Queen Square. The large ground floor banking room, redecorated in Pompeian Red, formed the principal display space and Curator's accommodation. More exhibition space and a meeting room for the Trustees were created on the first floor. The caretaker, who also lived on the premises, had rooms in the basement.
The Holburne of Menstrie Museum opened its doors on 1 June 1893 and had received 5,000 visitors by the end of the year. The drop in numbers to between 2,000 and 3,000 in the following years was attributed by the Trustees to the unfashionable location of the building and the lack of signposts in the town.
In 1906 the remnant of the estate of Catherine Cussans, Sir William's aunt, fell to the Trustees. This made possible the acquisition and renovation of the still derelict Sydney College building. The purchase was completed in 1913 and Sir Reginald Blomfield was appointed to carry out the extensive restoration and alterations necessary to render the building suitable for Museum purposes. The Museum opened in its new building on 6 June 1916.